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Japan's lunar dream hit by technical snags, cash crunch: space officials
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  • UDAIPUR, India (AFP) Nov 25, 2004
    Japan's struggling lunar programme is plagued by money shortages and technical hitches, the country's space officials attending an international conference say.

    "We're strapped for cash. To solve problems we need an additional 10 million dollars every year," said Hitoshi Mizutani, chairman of the Department of Solid Planetary Science at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

    He was speaking on the sidelines of an international conference on lunar exploration in the northern Indian city of Udaipur this week.

    Japan's space programme has faced a series of setbacks since the mid-1990s, including a spate of launch failures.

    The launch of Japan's Lunar-A mission intended to shed light on the moon's origin and evolution using a module to land on its surface was set for August 2004 but no new date has been set, Mizutani told AFP.

    The launch of the second Selenological and Engineering Explorer or SELENE, named after the goddess in Greek mythology who is purported to drive the moon across the sky each night, has also been delayed.

    It was due to be launched next year but that target has been pushed back to late 2006, said Manabu Kato, scientist at the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.

    For the Lunar-A mission, Mizutani said a government review panel told the agency to improve the "robustness of communication" between the penetrators, which will drill three metres (yards) into the moon, and the spacecraft.

    In addition, the expert committee told the agency to improve its propulsion systems, but to meet them the agency required "time and money," he said.

    There was also a problem with valves used for propulsion of the spacecraft.

    The Lunar-A mission will study the seismic activity of the moon and the varying temperatures. The cylindrical-shaped spacecraft will whizz into an elliptical lunar orbit and rotate around the moon for about six months.

    Later, two penetrators carrying seismometers and "heat-flow probes" will be separated from the spacecraft to land on the moon.

    "The seismic observations are expected to provide key data on the size of the lunar core and the heat flow measurements will provide important data on the thermal structure and heat-generating elements in the moon," Mizutani said.

    "The SELENE mission was originally planned for 2005 but due to the delay of completion of launch vehicles H2 and H2A now it has been rescheduled for late 2006," Kato said. "It will be launched by the H2A rocket."

    Japan's next generation domestic rocket, the H2-A, capable of carrying about four tonne satellites, has had five successful launches despite various mechanical failures and delays.

    "Another source of worry is money. Due to the current financial condition of Japan, funds have dried up. A year ago, we proposed a SELENE-II but the committee never cleared it," Kato said.

    Japan's space budget was cut by 0.01 percent in 2004 to 273.2 billion yen (2.7 billion dollars) from 2003, a space agency official in Tokyo said. The Cabinet Office which manages the satellite programme got 63.1 billion yen in 2004, two percent less than last year.

    The SELENE-1 mission will be one of the largest missions to the moon and will circle it at an orbit of 100 kilometres (60 miles).

    The 2,885-kilogramme (6,347 pound) spacecraft with a payload of 300 kilogrammes will carry scientific instruments for global mapping of minerals and studying radioactive elements and a terrain camera and is due to remain in orbit for an year, Kato said.

    Scientists say the next decade will witness a race to conquer the moon among the United States, European nations, Russia, China, Japan and India. They will be scrambling to build outposts on the moon and use it as a base to explore space.

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